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For now, city firm on its road end policy

City officials were perhaps tempted, but in the end didn’t bite.

Instead, they turned down a developer’s proposal that would have altered shoreline access at the popular road end at Hidden Cove, according to city officials and members of the Road Ends Committee.

“Talks are dead for now,” REC Chair Bitsy Ostenson said. “There’s going to be no further action or offer by the city.”

Ostenson relayed the city’s decision, reached recently by planners and attorneys, to about 15 Hidden Cove residents gathered at the Commons Monday.

For now, the only impact of the city’s decision is that the road end will remain as it is – a dirt road that allows vehicle access to the top of a staircase to the beach. That was the desire of neighbors all along; their fear was that altered access would ruin the site, which they say is an important part of the neighborhood.

No change was imminent, according to officials. The REC had on multiple occasions reiterated its recommendation to maintain the existing access.

Still, neighbors of the road end became concerned last fall, after hearing about an offer made to the city by island developer Ron Holsman, who is under contract to buy property that includes the dirt road.

The city and neighbors say the public has a prescriptive right to the road’s use, since it has served as a public access point to the beach for more than a century.

Holsman said the changes he’s proposing were designed to improve, rather than remove, public access. Furthermore, he doesn’t think the city has a legal right to the road, which in the past has been vacated.

Though specific details are fuzzy, Holsman’s plan would have replaced the current vehicle access with a “serpentine path with wooded views,” he said. As a result, cars would no longer be able to get near the shoreline.

In exchange for the altered access, Holsman would pay for needed improvements at the road end, including better drainage and perhaps parking.

Currently there is no formal parking near the water.

Holsman has in the past called into question the legal standing of the road, which he contends is a driveway. He said he’s unearthed evidence to support his position, and has hinted he might sue the city if an agreement can’t be reached.

Reached by phone Tuesday, he declined to comment at length about his intentions, saying he’s still weighing his options.

The road was built in the 1890s, and used to connect to a stop for ferries in the Mosquito Fleet, which transported passengers around Puget Sound until the 1930s. The wharf there once was home to a store and post office.

The property has been residential since the 1960s. Holsman wants to buy it, knock down the current house and build a new one in which he and his wife would live for at least a few years before reselling.

He has already received several extensions on the deal, and has said he may abandon his plan if a resolution isn’t reached soon.

The committee will ask neighbors to fill out affidavits detailing their recollection of the history of the land. Such records could help better define the city’s position should it become a legal matter.

Whatever happens, Vince Larson, a retired attorney and member of the REC, on Monday said the city should stand firm.

“Of course, anyone can always file a lawsuit,” he said. “But I personally think the city has a strong legal position.”

City Councilwoman Debbie Vancil agrees the city shouldn’t strike a deal. She, like some, has been worried about how a possible deal might impact future road-end disputes, which arise often.

The city originally designated 74 public road ends in the 1990s, but that list has since shrunk considerably due to legal disputes. Decisions have swung both ways in the past, with some favoring – and others limiting – public access.

“We have road ends all over the island,” Vancil said. “Any change in our position on this could set a precedent.”

Should the city change its mind and decide to work with Holsman, the deal would still have to go through the council. Though it appears now that won’t happen, Vancil acknowledged the Hidden Cove issue – and other wrangling over road ends – isn’t likely to end any time soon.

“The city is committed to this,” she said. “But this battle might not be over.”

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